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California Startup Accused of Launching Unauthorized Satellites Into Orbi

The FCC has denied a space startup permission to launch a collection of communications satellites after discovering that it had already launched some — after being told not to. Swarm Technologies, a communications startup still in stealth mode and run by Silicon Valley expats—launched four tiny internet satellites into space back in January. That’s a problem because the FCC never greenlighted the project, saying the experimental satellites are deemed too small to be tracked and therefore unsafe to put into orbit. If confirmed, it would mark the first known time in history that unauthorized satellites have been placed in space.

IEEE Spectrum put the pieces together from public FCC documents and some launch manifests. Swarm’s original plan was to put several very small satellites — smaller even than 1U Cubesats — in orbit to test its experimental communications system.

But the small size meant the satellites couldn’t be tracked with existing space monitoring technology, and the FCC, which must approve communications satellite launches, considered this too great a risk and declined to authorize Swarm’s proposed deployment.

What should have happened next is: Swarm scrubs the deployment, applies again with larger satellites or some other means of improving the small ones’ visibility, the FCC grants permission and then the launch happens.

While the company did reapply with larger satellites, it seems to have gone ahead with the original plan of launching the tiny satellites despite the FCC’s warning not to. This is evident from the manifest of India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PDF) that took off in January, which included four “SpaceBEEs” matching the description of Swarm’s unauthorized craft.

It’s possible that Swarm’s satellites were already locked and loaded, and perhaps more importantly, paid for, by the time the FCC issued their decision in December. The long lead times for both approval and launch mean that much prep must be done while a deployment is still waiting for the official go-ahead — if you waited for the red tape to clear before even applying for a launch spot, you might run out of funding just waiting for your chance to get into orbit.

But in this case, especially as the FCC cited a safety issue — the inability to reliably track the satellites’ location — the correct thing to do would be to pull out of the launch. That’s easy for me to say, of course, it’s not my money or company, but skirting the rules like this may prove more costly in the end than adhering to them.

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